Music often means different things to different people. To some, music can simply be stimulating sounds whereas, to others, music has a more profound effect: It can be a lifestyle, an art, or even a form of therapy and stress relief. No matter what it means to you, music is denoted as an important part of many peoples’ lives. Not only is its impact associated with the above; research suggests a positive link between music and the ‘reward system’ in our brains.
There may have been a (or several) moment(s) in your life where you found yourself having ‘chills’ down your spine when listening to a song that is particularly enjoyable or emotional. Not at all uncommon! Chabin and colleagues (2020) wanted to delve into this phenomenon further and sought to investigate the brains of 18 healthy French individuals, who were sensitive to musical reward. These individuals said they experienced these ‘chills’ regularly when listening to their favourite musical pieces.
In this experiment, the participants were to listen to 15 minutes of 90 second extracts to songs they had previously selected under the premise of the ‘feeling’ it gave them; to put it familiarly, the ‘chills’ it gave them. Chabin et al. (2020) used a high-density EEG scanner to measure this activity in their brains, which was subsequently recorded. Concurrently, the participants were also asked to complete a questionnaire to determine at what moment they experienced these ‘chills’, while also rating their degree of pleasure at that point.
The scans retrieved at the end of this study reported brain activity in different parts of the brain.
An interesting finding was the increase in theta waves in the orbitofrontal cortex. A theta wave is a wave of brain activity that follows in regular oscillations. The orbitofrontal cortex is an area associated with emotional processing. The waves were correlated with the intensity of ‘chills’ and the strength of emotions experienced by the participants.
Additionally, activity was also detected in the supplementary motor area, a region of the brain involved in motor control, and the right temporal lobe, which is involved in interpreting non-verbal communication, such as music.
The researchers interpreted the activation of these theta waves as a signal of a reward response, which meant that the pleasure triggers the build-up of dopamine, followed by its release. They explained that these regions work in harmony to process musical pleasure by triggering the brain’s reward systems and consequently release the “feel-good” hormone: dopamine.
This study followed the link between music and pleasure; a relationship that has been widely studied in the past. However, moving forward, we recognise the correlation between music and the release of dopamine during this experience, which can be categorised as a fairly novel conclusion.
Another interesting facet is research contemplating these results through the possible affiliation to ancestral functions. It has been noted that we get similar brain stimulation by listening to music as we do when engaging in activities involving our survival–such as eating and procreating. To put it plainly, the reward system is associated with survival, and we feel pleasure for activities that are vital to our survival. It is however largely undetermined as to why we get similar feelings when listening to our favourite songs. The understanding of the biological implications of music are still wanting in research, however, we can comfortably say that music, to an individual, is much more than just a ‘pleasant noise’ or sound.
Chabin comments on this uncertainty by saying – “Musical pleasure is a very interesting phenomenon that deserves to be investigated further, in order to understand why music is rewarding and unlock why music is essential in human lives.”
Original Source: Chabin, T., Gabriel, D., Chansophonkul, T., Michelant, L., Joucla, C., Haffen, E., Moulin, T., Comte, A. and Pazart, L. (2020). Cortical Patterns of Pleasurable Musical Chills Revealed by High-Density EEG. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 14.
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